Unwiederbringlich is one of five of Fontane's novels available for free in the Amazon Kindle store. The novel has been translated into English as No Way Back or No Return, but I prefer the more literal translation of the title: Irretrievable. Written between 1887 and 1890, Unwiederbringlich is an elegant, finely crafted work of fiction - surely one of Fontane's best novels. It is known as Fontane's "other" novel of marriage - the primary one being his masterpiece Effi Briest. In Unwiederbringlich Fontane displays a mastery of the conventions and techniques of the 19th century novel - dialogue, letters, travelogue, even drama criticism - along with an almost modernistic psychological component of interior monologue.
Unwiederbringlich deals with a troubled marriage. Count Holk and his beautiful wife Christine live in Holkenäs Castle on shores of the Baltic and outwardly seem to have a perfect life of privilege. But after seventeen years of marriage there are clouds on the horizon and the happy days seem to be behind them. Their opposing natures - which no doubt brought them together in the first place ("opposites attract") - is now the source of constant irritation. Holk is a vital, good-looking, but rather superficial man, while his wife is a pious, brooding soul. A child has been lost to illness, which weighs heavily on Christine; in general, she is obsessed with death. Holk, on the other hand, is looking to realize some measure of happiness in his life, which is why he jumps at the chance to serve as a stand-in courtier in the Danish Court in Copenhagen (Schleswig was still under Danish rule at the time).
From this point the reader follows Holk to Denmark, while Christine recedes in the background, making her presence felt only through the occasional letter. Initially, it was hoped that a temporary separation would revitalize the marriage, and the couple could recapture their happiness through an intimate correspondence:
"Wie bei vielen Eheleuten, so stand es auch bei den Holkschen. Wenn sie getrennt waren, waren sie sich innerlich am nächsten, denn es fielen dann nicht bloß die Meinungsverschiedenheiten und Schraubereien fort, sondern sie fanden sich auch wieder zu früherer Liebe zurück und schrieben sich zärtliche Briefe."
(The Holks were very much like many married couples. When they were apart, they were emotionally closest to each other. For not only did all the arguments and nagging vanish, but they were able to find their way back to their earlier feelings of love and wrote each other tender letters.)
Only this time - and this is Fontane's brilliance - the letters have the opposite effect. Holk tries to write breezy letters about his experiences in Copenhagen, but does a poor job of concealing his attraction to two of the women he encounters. Christine's letters chastise Holk for succumbing to the loose morals of the Danes, which only reinforces Holk's determination to pursue his own pleasure and dismiss his wife as an Eisberg.
Despite his good looks and impeccable manners, Holk is ill-suited for he court. The princess values humor and sparkling, witty conversation above all else, and Holk has too much "German earnestness" to be the ideal courtier. The object of his infatuation - the beautiful, clever lady-in-waiting Ebba Rosenberg - is a shrewd judge of Holk's character:
"Er ist moralisch, ja beinah tugendhaft und schielt doch begehrlich nach der Lebemannschaft hinüber."
(He is a moral, even virtuous man, but he is envies the playboy lifestyle.)
Ebba's criticism doesn't stop her from seducing Holk - more out of boredom than anything else.
The act of adultry, followed by a harrowing fire scene, would have tragic consequences. Holk completely misreads Ebba's intentions, and returns to Holkenäs Castle to end his marriage with Christine in one of the most dramatic scenes in German fiction.
By the time, several years later, Holk and Christine attempt to reconcile and renew their marriage vow, Christine, in her suffering and devout faith, takes on almost saintly qualities. She is practically worshiped by the town folk:
"Alle hielten Körbe in Händen und streuten Blumen über den Weg, einige aber, die dem Ansturm ihrer Gefühle nicht wehren konnten, warfen die Körbe beiseite und drängten sich an Christine heran, um ihr die Hand oder auch nur den Saum des Kleides zu küssen. »Sie machen eine Heilige aus mir«, sagte die Gräfin..."
(They were all holding baskets in their hands and tossing flowers on the path. But some, who couldn't contain their emotions threw their baskets to the side and pressed forward to kiss Christine's hand, or just the hem of her dress. "They're making me out to be a saint," the countess said.)
And when the countess drowns herself in the Baltic, the transfiguration is complete. Christine is angelic in death, the death she had longed for from the beginning:
"Der Ausdruck stillen Leidens, den ihr Gesicht so lange getragen hatte, war dem einer beinah heiteren Verklärung gewichen, so sehr bedürftig war ihr Herz der Ruhe gewesen."
(The expression of pure suffering, which had marked her face for so long, had given way to an almost blithe transfiguration, so desperate was her heart for peace.)
In typical Fontane fashion, the novel does not judge Holk too harshly for his tragic misteps. Indeed, Holk is depicted sympathetically throughout much of the novel, while Christine is drawn as a bit over the top in her sentimental piety. And the reader senses that Fontane is more attracted to the gay opulence of the court than to the spartan dreariness of Holkenäs Castle. It is this ambiguity which makes Unwiederbringlich such a pleasure to read nearly 125 years after it was written.
Unwiederbringlich takes place against the backdrop of the conflict between Denmark and Prussian, which eventually erupted into war in 1863. The events in the novel take place long before the war, but the political tensions are much discussed and I had difficulty in following all of the intrigue. But it has peaked my curiosity to read more about this fascinating history. Fontane himself was an expert on the history and wrote Der Schleswig-Holsteinische Krieg im Jahre 1864 - which I've put on my reading list.